In Praise of Father-in-Laws

If you study the fine print on the acknowledgments page of Joshua Coben’s first book, Maker of Shadows, you will read, “I am deeply grateful to Michael Perkins, the first reader of many of these poems, for his invaluable help in shaping this book. I could ask for no better guide and companion in the world of poetry.”

Yes, that would be the same Michael Perkins who is my co-author for Walking Woodstock: Journeys into the Wild Heart of America’s Most Famous Small Town. Joshua Coben is married to one of Michael’s daughters. She’s a lawyer. He’s a school teacher. Together they have three children and live outside Boston. Beyond that, I know little, save that Michael has told me, “Josh worked very hard on this book.” It shows. These poems have a confidence and a cadence that causes the Norton Anthology to echo in my ears. They aren’t written in the contemporary confessional mode. They have a grander scale that’s thrilling. Maker of Shadows won the 2009 X.J. Kennedy Poetry Prize from the Texas Review Press. X.J. Kennedy, himself, calls it “one of the very best collections ever to grace” this series. How refreshing to have a prize named after someone still alive to enjoy passing the baton.

I’m reminded of my own former father-in-law, the late Harvey Segal. Though we didn’t share literature—that was for his wife, Eloise, who wrote novels destined, alas, for her desk drawer—we certainly shared writing. After earning a PhD in economics, Harvey left the academic world to write editorials for the Washington Post. By the 1980s, when I met and eventually married his daughter, he was the publications editor for the economics department at Citibank, where my father worked as well. After the department was disbanded in the mid-1980s, Harvey used his retirement to write his first book, The Corporate Makeover: The Reshaping of the American Economy, one of the few such books I’ve read and enjoyed. “Because I opine on so many controversial issues,” Harvey wrote, “the reader may sometimes think me in error but never in doubt.” Harvey once described himself to me as an Anarcho-Capitalist. Whatever that was, he made it exciting to be around. Though he passed away in 1994, he lives on in my imagination like a Saul Bellow character, an Upper West Sider with a brain stuffed like a library and a mouth that could say “motherfucker” with a triumphant snarl.

In style and interests Michael Perkins and Harvey Segal are different breeds. It was Eloise who once recited that famous quip to me, “Every time I feel the urge to exercise I lie down until it passes,” but it was Harvey who lived it. He walked as if his body was stiff and out-of-joint, moving forward as if his shoulder had been ruined in one direction, his hips in another, the tin man constructed out of crooked swinging gates. Plus, he had a great swath of long gray hair combed over his baldness that stood up like a unruly flag in a breeze. Once in Soho, my wife and I spotted him, by pure chance, half a block ahead of us on the sidewalk, marching ahead slowly with that ungainly gait, not as if infirm, but as if caught up in great thoughts, while his hair blew up wildly in the wind, a shock of hippie hair on a New York Intellectual Jew. Before rushing to catch up with him, my wife and I shared a delighted smile in realizing that in all of Manhattan no one walked the way her father did. Harvey was one of a kind.

Harvey would never have collaborated with me on Walking Woodstock as Michael did. Michael has his own distinctive gait, high shouldered as if a small balloon under his shirt carries him along, but Michael moves in a forward direction and is at ease for miles to come. (For Harvey a block was a journey.) Yet in these two men I see two similarities. The first is a deep learnedness, a huge interest in books and in people’s lives. The second is that they’ve been what a son-in-law would want in a father-in-law, not a second father but a mentor and an adviser, a man of experience in the world. Harvey helped me through writing crises still painful to recall. Alas, I didn’t begin dabbling in poetry until near the end of his life. The first poem of my own that I ever read in public was at his memorial. In truth, I still had lots to learn about the art form. So let me take the liberty of choosing two poems from Maker of Shadows to honor two father-in-laws.

For Harvey, who spent a good part of his career in the Citibank office tower on Park Avenue and would have smiled at this wit:

Bank in the Rain

Where granite postal hall meets marble
sepulcher, young tellers schooled
in sullenness just shy of rude
red-stamp withdrawal slips, mete out
stiff bills with blackjack-dealing skill.
Their queuing, slick-shoed clients shake
umbrellas half-collapsed like loose-
winged bats, sprinkling the legal tender,
heedless as smokers flicking ash
in a fireworks shop. These are bane
of banks: paper and moisture mixed,
profaning hands that taint the sacred
money metaphor, the crowds
that jostle in with soggy dress
and gutter speech, their voices booming
under lofty stone until
as in a library or church
they’re stricken with solemnity.

Once quiet they can hear, tamped down
as if by rain, the muted swish
of petty cash, the sotto voce
counting, counter-counting, whispers
emanating from the vaults
which they divine as holding not
their gold but tropes of comfort: bonds
of ease, certificates of hope.
They smell compounding capital
like batter folded on itself,
yeasted the first of every month,
slow-rising dough that stinks of I-
OU. Your money isn’t here,
avers the bank, like Jimmy Stewart
stopping a run on the Building and Loan.
It’s in the air, the measured rain
refreshing all of us, diffuse
yet massive in combined effect.
In winter one can’t importune
the rosebush to repay the cloud
for sustenance its roots may suck.
One must await the burgeoning
and then the bloom. So be content
for now or stand in the line, fill out
the form permitting you to pluck
your puny share in all of this.
If you’re impatient, here, withdraw
your kernel see, your tendril shoot.
Go plant at home, bring forth your weed.
See what slim shade, what paltry crop,
what fragrant impotence you reap

For Michael, the rover, who has written an unpublished novel about Arthur Rimbaud.

Arthur Rimbaud

Blue summer evenings, pricked by stalks of wheat,
I’ll go on paths, tramp down the slender grass:
Half dreaming, I’ll feel its coolness at my feet.
I’ll let the wind bathe my bare head and face.

I will not speak or think: but boundless love
Will climb my soul, and like a bohemian
Far, far into the countryside I’ll rove—
Happy there as if beside a woman.

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